Jason Katz-Brown, who has participated in more than 30 Scrabble tournaments a cross the country, last year was the highest-ranked player in North America. In 2005, he placed 6th in the U.S. Scrabble Open — one of the most prestigious Scrabble tournament in the world — and last year was one of only 14 players handpicked to represent the U.S. in the World Scrabble Championship in London.
What sets him apart from his competitors, says the third-year electrical engineering and computer science major, is that he got very good very fast.
First, he learned all 100,000-plus words in the official Scrabble dictionary, which he carries around in his pocket at all times. One summer when he worked in Japan, he commuted an hour and a half each way to work every day, so spent the time memorizing all 24,000 eight-letter words in the English language.
And, he spent hours alphagramming — that is, rearranging the letters of each word into alphabetical order, then memorizing the string. “So ‘Scrabble,’ for example, becomes A-B-B-C-E-L-R-S,” he explains. “I’ll study the string for each word until I know how to find the word from the letters that are already there. Then, when I play, I just put my Scrabble tiles in alphabetical order, and the words pop up.”
Katz-Brown says he doesn’t need to know the meanings of all those words. And that irrelevance says something about what draws him to the competitive aspect of this game. Although most casual players think of Scrabble as a word game, he views it as an endless mathematical problem.
“All the words are just letter strings that I use to gain points,” he says, adding that part of his success strategy is to keep a mental tally of which tiles have and haven’t yet been played. It’s the level of strategy involved, in fact, that keeps him playing.
ADDRESSING THE CHALLENGE
Katz-Brown grew up in California with two older brothers, sons of a biochemist and the first woman economics professor at U.C. Berkeley. When Jason was two, he became captivated by a Billy Casper golf video, so his dad bought him a tiny golf club. He played the game through high school, then for two years on the MIT varsity golf squad, but lost interest after realizing how difficult it would be to make a mark that way.
Occasionally, he and his family also played Scrabble. “My dad always pressured me to play because he thought it would make me smarter,” recalls Katz-Brown. “But I never liked it. So we’d play as a family about once a year.”
All that changed four years ago when his brother gave him the book Word Freak, by Stefan Fatsis, as a birthday gift. The book is about hard-core Scrabble players and the unique world they inhabit. Jason read it, then read it again.
“I hadn’t known anything about the competitive, hard-core aspects of the game. I thought it was really cool,” he says. “Part of me wanted to let the (Scrabble experts) Joel Shermans and Joe Edleys do their own thing, and just admire them from the outside. But another part of me thought that I could do that, too.”
So Katz-Brown found himself captivated once again — this time, by a growing interest in the analysis of this popular family game. “Once I started,” he says, “I saw it as a challenge. And I didn’t want to step down from that.”
BEST IN THE WORLD
Katz-Brown suspects that his Scrabble prowess has already influenced his future, certain that it helped him gain admittance to MIT and later land a summer job at Google headquarters in California. After he graduates, he plans to either go to grad school or return to Google full-time. And somewhere along the way, he intends to become the best Scrabble player in the world.
“Getting this good at Scrabble,” he says, “has taught me that you should always hunt for things that you can actually get very good at — and then achieve a level that has positive outcomes for you.”